'Secrecy Bill issues relate to typos'

The President says the bill won't pass constitutional muster in its current form.

The Protection of State Information Bill. Picture: Regan Thaw/EWN

The bill was approved by the National Assembly in April.

But on Thursday, President Jacob Zuma referred the bill back to Parliament, saying it won't pass constitutional muster in its current form.

Zuma said there are still problems with the draft law, particularly in two sections dealing with penalties.

The bill has been met with fierce opposition by a number of civil society groups and opposition parties who claim it could stifle media freedom and was thus dubbed the 'Secrecy Bill'.

The ministry is clear the changes that need to be made to these two clauses are the result of typing errors.

It says that without these changes the meaning of these clauses will be muddled.

But it appears to mean these won't be substantial changes to the bill and its main impact could remain unchanged.

However, President Zuma knows opposition parties have the votes they need to refer this bill to the Constitutional Court.

Parliament will now set up an ad hoc committee to consider the president's reservations about the bill.

'LOOKED AT IN ENTIRETY'

While opponents have welcomed the president's decision, they say the bill must now be looked at in its entirety.

Various lobby groups and activists believe meaningful changes need to be made to the bill so it can't be used to stifle press freedom and whistle-blowers.

The South African National Editors Forum's Mpumelelo Mkhabela said lawmakers can now reapply their minds.

"Lawmakers can now apply their minds again to ensure that in the end, they pass a bill which passes constitutional muster."

Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko says parliament has been given an opportunity to fix the bill.

"And now we can have parliament apply its mind to this legislation and render it constitutional before it's signed into law."

The Right2Know (R2K) Campaign's Dale McKinley said this is a victory for South Africans.

"This shows when there is a bad piece of legislation we can fight it, we can change it and win it in the long term. As the R2K we'll continue the battle."

But McKinley also questioned Zuma's next move.

"The question is what Parliament will do with it now. There are six other clauses in the bill that are regarded as unconstitutional, but Zuma made no mention of that."

R2K's Murray Hunter says the bill should be looked at in its entirety.

"There aren't just a few problems with the bill. We have raised a comprehensive list."

Constitutional lobby group Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) echoed R2K's concerns and said it's too early to celebrate.

"We would urge Parliament to look at the bill as a whole as to whether it satisfies the test of constitutionality in various aspects."

Adding to these calls, the Helen Suzman Foundation says Parliament should use this opportunity to fix several aspects of the bill.